'A Tale of Two Houses' film is a love song to Tucson's musical past

In the spring of 2021, having just returned to Tucson, film director Chris Carlone’s drove his car approaching two West University-area Craftsman-style bungalows — with the memories of the happenings that took place in those two one-time party houses indelibly stamped in his DNA — and kismet and nostalgia collided together. There at the intersection of Speedway and Euclid he found the inspiration for “A Tale of Two Houses,” his first feature-length documentary film, focusing his lens on what was the epicenter of the Tucson underground DIY music scene between 1984–1986.

“I was amazed that the two houses were still there,” Carlone said. “Then I saw the gigantic mountain of high rises built for student housing.”

Carlone realized that it is only a matter of time before the two houses become appropriated for urban development.

“At the same time, I saw this young guy walk past the two houses. The way he was dressed… He was a rock kind of guy,” Carlone said. “I thought, ‘He has no clue of the history of these two houses. How could he?’”

Located on what has been called “The ugliest street in America” — next to the long-since defunct and razed Greasy Tony’s — during the mid-1980s, 814 and 818 East Speedway were infamous.

Today, given their ordinary, overlooked façades, nobody could imagine what once happened there.

At that moment, Carlone — a professional videographer/editor, musician, photographer, performance artist, and former resident of one of the two party houses — decided that he should tell the story.

“A Tale from Two Houses” premieres this weekend, with multiple screenings that coincide with HoCo Fest at Hotel Congress — where so long ago, so many of the bands born at 814 and 818 took the stage for the first time.

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“In ‘86, I was 16 years old. We moved here from Orange County. So I caught the tail end of the period covered in the film,” Carlone recalled. ”Where we lived in Southern California was like the mecca of punk shows and goth clubs. So after landing in Tucson, I went to Wrex Records looking for something to do.”

Wrex Records, an alternative record store/performance venue owned by Chris Olivas and Joey Furno, operated from 1985 to 1993.

“At Wrex, I started seeing flyers for parties at 814 and 818 East Speedway,” Carlone recalled. “One night I was with my family driving down Speedway. We passed by the two houses. There were people partying on the porches and crawling out of the windows. When we stopped at the light, you could hear music, a loud band.”

Heeding the call of the wild, Carlone asked his parents frantically, “Hey, do you mind if I jump out here?”

“I was trapped in the car with my parents,” he said. “But I took note.”

Now Carlone knew where to find the cool house parties.

* * *

“The first time I went to a party there, I remember being in the parking lot behind the house and feeling scared. I was a kid,” Carlone noted, reliving the rush of adrenaline and fear blending together. “After a minute, I decided that I was just going to go for it. I walked up the stairs to the backdoor. I entered the house passing through the cramped kitchen into the living room. You couldn’t go in through the front door because the drum kit would be set up blocking it. A punk band from D.C. called Beefeater was playing. They were on Dischord Records and mixed punk with funk and jazz, pre-Red Hot Chili Peppers. People were slamming and dancing wildly. I had never seen anything like that before.”

“I remember the feeling of thinking, ‘I found my people,’” Carlone exclaimed.

“The scene at 818 (and next door at 814) was so wonderfully inclusive of all of the young people who might have otherwise felt left out of more mainstream venues,” said Chris Wagganer, a video engineer and contributor to the film. “Not everybody got along with everyone all of the time. But it seemed like there was a feeling of unity, regardless of whether the person was a ‘punk’ or a “new waver,” or whatever alternative identity they were exploring. Plus, having Greasy Tony’s as a commissary next door was quite convenient as well.”

Garage-rock bands like River Roses and the Johnnies were playing the same parties as Blood Spasm and a laundry list of other punk bands that were out on the road.

“That was the nature of college towns during the ‘80s,” Carlone noted.

Set in the pre-digital era — an analog world before cellphone cameras, selfies and TikTok — “A Tale of Two Houses” is an ode to the individualists who found themselves outside of the mainstream and the unique community that they formed together.

“That’s what this film is about.”

* * *

But did this so-called “wonderland” — a word used by Chris Holiman (River Roses) to describe the underground scene that unfolded at the two houses — have an impresario?

“It really started with David Forbes,” Carlone noted. “When he moved into 818 he had a roommate, Blake. They would both attend shows at Wrex Records. Afterwards they would invite people back to their house for after-parties.”

“And it started happening on a regular basis.”

“818 E. Speedway was the first to become a party house. David had a Coke vending machine stocked with beer,” enthused Carlone, “and a pinball machine and video games.”

“David Forbes was kind of a genius. He built a transmitter, installed antennas on Mount Lemmon, and started a pirate radio station: Radio Limbo.”

Broadcasting at 103.3 on the FM dial, Tucson’s long-running low-watt radio station grew to become an independent voice for the people. Yet, despite the airwaves belonging to the people, the pirate radio station clashed with the FCC several times during its existence. At one point, the regulatory agency confiscated the station’s transmitter only to bounce back with funds raised by its supporters.

DIY spirit in full effect.

* * *

“A Tale of Two Houses” features live performance footage and soundtrack music from Tucson legends: Rainer Ptacek, Al Perry, Naim Amor, Phantom Limbs, Los Hamsters, The Deadbolts, River Roses, The Vegas Kids (David Slutes’ early band), y mucho mas.

A big part of the film originates from the live broadcasts that took place at the 818 house, which came, in large part, thanks to public-access television where the general public could create content.

“Chris Wagganer was definitely a part of that scene. He was a videographer then and had great archival footage of all these bands playing in the kitchen and living room,” Carlone said. “He was also a musician who played in and knew a bunch of bands. So it was a perfect fit.”

“My favorite times at 818 East Speedway — aka ‘The 818 Club’ — I would have to say were the two live cablecasts I produced there,” Wagganer recalled. “Tucson Community Cable Corporation (later known as Access Tucson) provided the means for doing live remote cable TV shows. I took advantage of that in the form of ‘Electric Window,’ my regular public-access music video show. It was an enormous task. But with the help of a wonderful crew we were able to bring the party from one living room into the living rooms of anyone who wanted to tune in.”

Lamentably, in May 2015, Access Tucson announced that it would shut down after the city cut funding for Channel 20.

* * *

In addition to Wagganer, videographers Denise Webb and Charles Alfred “Charley” Brown also shot footage at the two houses during that time. It also aired on public-access cable television shows, like The TWIT Show (Tucson Western International Telethon).

The TWIT Show was a weekly live variety show — that regularly featured the improvisational comedy and hijinks of Randy Harris, Dave Bukunis and Brown — that aired from 1984-’87.

“I am so honored and grateful that Denise Webb — director of the documentary film ‘Punks Tucson Style’ (1985) — gave me permission to use her B-roll footage of Wrex Club and other gems for my documentary.”

“Punks Tucson Style” offers a glimpse into the hardcore/punk rock scene in Tucson circa 1985. It features interviews with T.S.O.L., Useless Pieces of Shit, Blind Leading the Blind (which included drummer Tasha Bundy) and performance footage shot at WREX Club (a short lived nightclub that operated during the winter of 1985).

“And Charley. Charley was a performer,” Carlone remarked. “He was the most incredible Dr. Frank N. Furter ever.”

Brown played Frank N. Furter — the cross-dressing mad scientist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show — as part of the Tucson cast at the Loft Cinema for over 20 years.

For her use of torn fishnet stockings, dyed hair, and a provocative S&M bent, Rocky Horror’s costume designer Sue Blane has been credited for setting the template for punk rock fashion.

“When I was 16 and new to Tucson, I went to the Loft (when it was on 6th Street) every weekend to see Rocky Horror. I am a performer. Charley inspired me,” Carlone enthused. “‘I wanted to be like him.’”

The Loft opened as an art house in 1965 at the northeast corner of 6th Street and Fremont Avenue. The original space first functioned as a meeting place for UA students involved with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1992, the University of Arizona purchased the building prompting the New Loft’s move to its current location on East Speedway.

* * *

Employing the talents of Tucson artists — Kevin Byrd, Chris Cilla, Dana Fiorelli, Kristi Goodman, and Aiden Holiman — “A Tale of Two Houses” makes creative use of illustration and animation to help tell the story in a vibrant comic book-esque style.

“There are lots of cool visuals in the film.”

“It has been a really interesting process. The film was originally intended to be 15 minutes long,” Carlone said, sheepishly. “As I started interviewing people it began to expand. After interviewing 40 people I had to stop.”

“A Tale of Two Houses” runs 1 hour and 37 minutes.

“The magic that happened then, could not have happened at any other time,” Carlone said. “I have a romanticism towards a pre-digital world. The film is a great piece of history that depicts how much the world has changed.”

“This sounds crazy… I know. But, it feels like the film has a spirit of its own that has been guiding me,“ Carlone said. “I feel that it is important to a lot of people and bear pressure to get it right.”

Providing a perfect snapshot of the underground music scene and what it was like to be young in Tucson during the mid-1980s, “A Tale of Two Houses” is director Chris Carlone’s love song to days gone by.